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Superman director Richard Donner passes away at 91

He'd a long career across TV and film

Richard Donner, director of Superman, The Omen, Lethal Weapon, The Goonies, and more, has passed away. Flowing from TV to movies, he was an architect of modern Hollywood. His family confirmed the news to Variety. He was 91.

Of course, many know him for his work through the ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s where he directed some of the best movies of all time. Starting with The Omen in 1976, to Superman in 1978, the Lethal Weapon series of action movies, The Goonies, Ladyhawke, Scrooged, Donner became a very familiar name for anyone who grew up in those decades. Eventually he transitioned to being a producer, with his wife Lauren Shuler Donner, under The Donners Company.

With more hits under his belt than many filmmakers get to make, Donner was someone who barely missed. And even on the rare occasion that he did, like the strange fantasy movie Ladyhawke, it usually still found its fan as a cult classic. Moving from The Omen, a satanic horror movie piggybacking on 1973’s The Exorcist, to Superman, birthing the superhero blockbuster in the process, proved his versatility and comprehension of genre, skills he’d display over and over.

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Before he became a box office top-seller, he’d an extensive run in television, lending his eye to dozens of the best TV series. Here, too, he refused categorisation. Mr. Novak, The Man from U.N.C.L.E., the Wild Wild West, The Banana Splits Adventure Hour, he could, and would, shoot anything, and do it well.

His time on The Twilight Zone, where he directed several episodes in season five, yielded one of the highlights of the entire show, the original ‘Nightmare at 20,000 Feet’. It’s become a genre staple, about a nervous flyer who believes he can see a gremlin on the wing of the plane, but nobody believes him.

William Shatner, pre-Star Trek fame, played the lead, a tightly-wound anxious wreck who grows increasingly manic across the 25 minutes. Relying on a small set, and using the bare minimum of moving parts, Donner, from a script by Richard Matheson, captured the unique blend of dread and excitement that made the short-form anthology so entrancing. Many, including The Twilight Zone itself, would imitate, but never duplicate, his success.

We’ve argued before about why Christopher Reeve’s Superman is the best, and that argument carries through to much of Donner’s work. Whether it’s unassuming Clark Kent, or Riggs and Murtaugh sharing a squad car in Lethal Weapon, or the titular gaggle of misfits in The Goonies, Donner understood that great humanity breeds great storytelling.

His characters were identifiable, flawed and human. Like Richard Pryor’s Jack who’s resolute in showing the Bates family how to be decent, or Donald Glover’s Murtaugh being too old for this shit, Donner molded his characters with a certain vulnerability. It helps he was shrewd in his casting, like when he tapped into Bill Murray’s inherent arrogance for Scrooged, culminating in a seasonal monologue for the ages.

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Donner remained curious in Hollywood, working on Tales from the Crypt when he could have pick of the litter in the late ’80s, and then later, as a producer. He and his wife were producers on all the Fox X-Men movies, right up to and including 2020’s The Next Mutants, as well as the spin-off TV shows Legion and The Gifted. He’d a hand in 2005’s Constantine, and many other beloved pictures besides, like 1998’s You’ve Got Mail, 1999’s Any Given Sunday, and the Free Willy franchise.

Tributes have been steadily rolling in from across the film industry. Zack Snyder posted on Twitter, and Kevin Feige, chief creative officer at Marvel Studios who interned with Donner’s production company, released a statement. Steven Spielberg, whose company Amblin Entertainment produced The Goonies, did the same.

Of all the many things he accomplished – and there were many – perhaps the greatest of all was that he made us believe a man could fly. He will be missed.